Cleveland Plain Dealer. May 23, 2021.

Editorial: Widespread 2020 fraud in Ohio jobless claims highlights need for accountability, reforms

The acting head of Ohio’s unemployment compensation program said Monday that the state had paid out more than $2.1 billion in mistaken or fraudulent benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That eye-popping revelation, by Matthew Damschroder, acting director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, was troubling enough.

But it came on top of recent allegations by Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, in a cleveland.com interview, that ODJFS under prior leadership repeatedly misled his office, from last May to December, about the extent of jobless claim fraud and was slow to institute additional anti-fraud measures.

Faber, whose own identity was stolen for jobless-claim fraud, acknowledged in the interview with Jeremy Pelzer that, at the time, ODJFS was overwhelmed by jobless claims and had prioritized getting checks mailed out. Yet that doesn’t excuse misleading auditors, or being blind to mounting fraud and its costs, both in dollars and trust.

Nor does it take off the hook Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, to whom DeWine had delegated solving the jobless-claims problem, for not stepping in more forcefully to exert leadership and control of a department so obviously spinning out of control.

Or absolve the state legislature for years of funding neglect of ODJFS that clearly set the stage for the department’s COVID-19 meltdown.

What’s needed? Top-down reform. Improved funding. A re-examination of ODJFS’ structure -- mixing jobless claims and human services. Upgraded security and computer systems. And far more oversight and accountability for performance.

Three months ago, in contrast to Damschroder’s latest estimates, Kimberly Henderson, then director of Job and Family Services, told reporters that Ohio had paid at least $330 million in fraudulent pandemic unemployment benefits claims between April 2020 and December 2020. Yet Faber told Pelzer his aides had been told during a routine 2020 audit of ODJFS that unemployment compensation fraud involved just “ordinary (audit) scope stuff.”

In recent testimony to a state legislative panel, Bob Hinkle, chief deputy Ohio auditor, likened the obfuscation to auditors by ODJFS last year to Coingate, the last time the auditor’s office had to issue a “qualified” opinion in an audit of a state agency. In that 2006 case, the “qualified” finding was for the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation when it was investing heavily in GOP-connected, high-risk investment schemes, including Tom Noe’s rare-coin fund. (Noe ended up spending nearly a dozen years in prison.)

Hinkle also testified, as Pelzer reported, that ODJFS last year “was unable to provide sufficient documentation to review the unemployment system’s security or computer system.”

In other words, ODJFS staff may have grossly misled the auditor of state and his staff, keeping needed correctives from being made earlier. The auditor is now conducting new audits, and no charges have been filed.

Henderson stepped down in March to move with her new husband to North Carolina. Damschroder, a veteran public manager who is state Administrative Services director, became acting Job and Family Services director March 8. It appears that, thanks to Damschroder’s work, Job and Family Services, all things considered, is recovering.

DeWine, generally a praiseworthy leader during the COVID-19 pandemic, has ultimate responsibility for the unemployment compensation mess. The buck stops with him and Husted, assigned by DeWine to help oversee unemployment compensation.

DeWine and Husted should have recognized from the get-go that Job and Family Services was overwhelmed – obvious to countless unemployed Ohioans – and that the agency needed help. With state and local health departments, ODJFS was the front-line COVID-19 responder, or should have been, for working Ohioans. But there were warning flags from Day One.

Meanwhile, a feckless General Assembly, led by Republicans, griped rather than helped. Legislators who repeatedly failed to address the rickety funding for jobless claims then shamelessly complained about the performance of an agency whose needs they had neglected.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported in April that Ohio’s current average unemployment compensation tax rate (2.11%) is far less than the 2.62% “adequate financing rate.” (The employer-paid tax applies only to the first $9,000 of an employee’s annual pay.)

The Ohio legislature has shirked its duty to remedy financial challenges to the state’s unemployment compensation fund -- including when Faber was president of the state Senate.

In a bureaucratic complication, at the behest of then-Gov. Bob Taft’s Republican administration, the General Assembly in mid-2000 created Job and Family Services by merging the Human Services Department (welfare and Medicaid) and Bureau of Employment Services (unemployment compensation).

The merger’s rationale was never entirely clear, especially after mid-2013, when the General Assembly created a separate Medicaid Department, in effect reassembling parts of the Human Services Department. Given the unique unemployment compensation challenges COVID-19 revealed, the legislature must study whether unemployment compensation should again form its own department to focus management attention. Legislative leaders must also knock heads among the Statehouse’s business and labor lobbies to reach a deal on bolstering system finances.

DeWine and Husted face the big-picture challenge: They must get and keep Job and Family Services up to speed. If the governor and lieutenant governor fail to do so, that would fairly call into question their management skills, a factor voters will consider during 2022′s gubernatorial election.

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Columbus Dispatch. May 23, 2021.

Editorial: DeWine has not ‘lost his mind.’ Vax-A-Million might just be a genius move

No one can say with a straight face that Gov. Mike DeWine doesn’t know that cold hard cash motivates many Ohioans.

The $1.66 billion spent on Ohio Lottery scratch-off tickets in 2019 alone is proof that more than a handful of Buckeyes will take a gamble for moolah.

Money talks in America and researchers have proven it can be used as an incentive to persuade people to get vaccinated.

Study after study has shown that despite the speed at which they were created, taking a coronavirus vaccine is far from a roll of the dice.

But too many don’t see it that way.

According to a Monmouth University poll released a month ago, 21% of Americans say they will never get the vaccine if they can avoid it.

The DeWine administration is betting that the state’s just-launched Vax-a-Million drawing for five $1 million prizes and college scholarships will prompt so-called “persuadables” to jump down from the fence and roll up their sleeves for a syringe full of one of the three vaccines being administered in the United States.

“You know there’s nothing more important to Ohio’s recovery and nothing more important to saving lives than more Ohioans getting the vaccine,” DeWine said on CNN’s New Day. “I know people are going to say ‘DeWine lost his mind. This is a waste.’ But what I think is a waste is now to have the vaccine that can save people’s lives and to have someone die of the COVID because they did not get vaccinated. That is a horrible, horrible waste. That is what a waste is.”

Ohio residents who are 18 or older that have received at least one vaccine dose can register to be entered to win one of the five $1 million prizes.

Children ages 12 to 17 who have received at least one vaccine dose and register are eligible to win a four-year, full-ride college scholarships at a public Ohio college or university.

The attention grabbing plan of course has its critics.

Some of the strongest are fellow Ohio Republicans who say funding from COVID-19 relief is being misused or can be used better elsewhere. Some of those same lawmakers have refused to wear masks and/or downplayed the pandemic’s impact.

“We’ve gone from 15 days to slow the spread to $1 million if you get the #COVID19 vaccine,” U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, wrote in a tweet. “Give me a break.”

The governor has called the “vax lottery” a creative way to increase the state’s vaccination rate, which sat at 41% around the time the contest was announced Wednesday, May 12.

Two days later, the daily rate of Ohioans 30 to 74 starting vaccination spiked by 6% after a 24% decrease week over week for the previous two Fridays.

That Friday saw the highest daily vaccination rates for a Friday in four weeks. The same was true for that Sunday and Monday, a Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman says.

All age groups saw increased vaccinated rates except those 80 and older, a group already highly vaccinated because they were first in line.

Within hours of the Vax-A-Million contest opening Tuesday, the Vax-a-Million website received 25 million hits, and hundreds of thousands of Ohioans signed up for the $1 million prize drawings and college scholarship giveaways.

The state’s vaccination rate was 43 percent as of Tuesday, with more than 5,017,279 Ohioans at least partly vaccinated and therefore eligible to enter the contest. If each person registers, they’d have a roughly one-in-a-million change of winning one of the top prizes.

Time will tell whether DeWine’s campaign persuades the hesitant, but much of the complaining seems like bluster.

Five million dollars amount to barely a drop in the bucket when compared to the amount spent on coronavirus relief and vaccines here and nationally.

The government has allocated $7.5 billion to CDC alone for “activities to plan, promote, distribute, administer, monitor, and track COVID-19 vaccines.”

The Ohio Department of Health already has spent roughly $10.5 million on public outreach, education, and expenses related to COVID-19 vaccines, a spokeswoman said.

This includes advertising.

Seated at his home in rural Cedarville, DeWine has gotten plenty of airtime on national news shows discussing the vax lottery.

Thinking out of the box might save Ohio taxpayers millions in the long run by preventing coronavirus infections.

The sooner most Ohioans are vaccinated, the sooner we can resume life in this new normal. That’s worth $5 million and change.

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Youngstown Vindicator. May 23, 2021.

Editorial: Senate should take it slow on House Bill 206

At a passing glance, it looks as if there’s just no stopping a state traffic-enforcement bill from steamrolling its way into the Ohio Revised Code.

On closer inspection, however, House Bill 206, which would green-light township police to patrol and issue tickets on interstate highways, can and should slow to a screeching halt.

The well-intentioned bill, sponsored by state Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, is similar to a slew of other bills that have been introduced into the Ohio General Assembly since 2015, only to languish without successful passage in both chambers of the Legislature. That alone should keep the yellow light flashing.

And despite its latest incarnation’s speedy two-month journey through the legislative process to its overwhelming and bipartisan 83-11 passage in the state House this month, caution remains critical on House Bill 206.

Specifically, HB 206 would grant a township police department in a township of between 5,000 and 50,000 residents the authority to make an arrest for specified traffic offenses such as speeding, texting while driving and unlawful U-turns on interstate highways within its jurisdiction if certain criteria are met.

Supporters tout the legislation as an added safety valve to ensure smooth sailing for motorists along popular and heavily traveled roadways. Township police could become partners with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which currently has exclusive traffic enforcement powers on interstate highways.

Those same supporters also quickly point out that it is not designed as a speed trap to fatten the revenue base of township governments. That’s because the legislation calls for all of the fines accrued from township police ticketing to flow directly into the county’s treasury for countywide highway maintenance and repairs.

Nevertheless the legislation has caught our skeptical eye because it could have a serious impact on the Mahoning Valley, through which several interstate highways such as I-80, I-76 and I-680 traverse. We’re also home to several large townships that HB 206 addresses, including Austintown, Beaver, Boardman, Canfield, Poland and Springfield in Mahoning County and Weathersfield, Liberty and Hubbard in Trumbull County.

Under its veneer of public safety enhancement, however, lies some rough spots that merit the public’s and state legislators’ serious attention.

For starters, some reasonably question the appropriateness of using township resources to benefit a state agency. By encouraging township officers to take over some of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s responsibilities, the bill is yet another instance of the state burdening local governments with unfunded mandates, former state Rep. John Boccieri, D-Poland, argued when similar legislation came before him in 2017.

In addition, given the recent trend of shrinking budgets for local safety forces, not all township police departments are itching to expand their patrol coverage territory. Austintown police Chief Robert Gavalier logically said this: “We have our hands full trying to catch speeders on the township roads.”

What’s more, time spent trolling the interstates would rob township police officers of valuable time in controlling nontraffic-related criminal activity through large commercial townships such as Boardman and Liberty.

In that regard, we tend to agree with the view of attorney Mark Finamore, who served as law director for several Valley communities in recent years, including Liberty. In his view, “You have to wonder that those (townships) that have small police forces, should they not be patrolling neighborhoods for break-ins and vandalism? It simply befuddles me. I can’t see township police cars on interstates adding any significant safety factors. I think it would be marginal at best.”

We agree.

Given other pressing matters in Columbus, it’s likely this bill may well get buried without hearings this spring. If and when it does make it to the Senate agenda, however, we’d recommend its defeat.

Should it pass and gain Gov. Mike DeWine’s signature, we’d insist that language in the bill that would not force the expanded jurisdiction on all township police departments remain solidly intact. In its current form, the legislation mandates that township trustees must pass a resolution to authorize the interstate patrols before they would be legal in any given community. We’d trust that trustees, such as those in Austintown, would follow the recommendations of their respective chiefs even if those chiefs oppose the expansion.

In doing so, they will go far toward serving and protecting township priorities and local control.

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Toledo Blade. May 20, 2021.

Editorial: Unpausing cancer screenings. We didn’t seek life-saving screenings during the lockdown, but it’s time to schedule them

As the coronavirus pandemic recedes as a direct threat, other known public health risks need to come back into focus.

Surveys and studies confirm that during last year’s lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, Americans decided to forgo routine medical care and delayed screenings. One study published in JAMA Oncology in April estimates that cancer screenings in particular were down by more than 9 million compared to 2019.

Now, screening rates are rising, but oncologists are sounding an alarm: Not enough people are getting tested, still. All who decided to pass on regularly scheduled checks should seek care immediately. The earlier cancer is diagnosed the more treatment options are available and the better chance a patient has of recovering.

The JAMA study notes that those who pivoted to telehealth were more likely to have continued getting screened than those who didn’t pursue any form of communication with their doctors during the lockdown. Many patients are continuing to rely on telehealth because of its convenience, but of course some procedures will require a physical trip and exam.

Some people have a natural aversion to screening for cancer. Colonoscopies aren’t pleasant. Mammograms are uncomfortable. This isn’t a reason to avoid getting checked. It’s up to each individual to check in and get tested at regular intervals to stand the best chance of catching the disease early.

Doctors around the country are seeing upticks in late-stage cancer diagnoses, when the disease is more complex to treat and potentially deadlier. This has led to the public awareness campaign “Time to Screen,” a partnership between CancerCare, Community Oncology Alliance and the COA’s Patient Advocacy Network. The campaign provides a free hotline number (855-537-2733) to call to learn about screening options in callers’ areas.

Public health departments are still largely focused on putting out messaging about the vaccine process. Local community organizations also must step up to spread the word and encourage people to be proactive about their health.

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Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: Oberlin should ease food truck rules

Let the food trucks roll — and park — in Oberlin.

City Council is considering an ordinance that would ease restrictions on food trucks, which would be a welcome departure from the onerous restrictions the city now imposes.

In recent years, food trucks have been effectively banned from Oberlin aside from special events or on private property if they obtained permits from the city.

Part of the reason for those restrictions was the “overblown fear,” as Councilman Kelley Singleton put it, that food trucks would descend on the city day after day and drive existing brick-and-mortar restaurants out of business.

“I’ll tell you who would be driven out of business if they decide to do that — it would be the food truck operator,” he said.

He’s right. Food trucks rarely park in one place because their owners recognize that their novelty would quickly wear off. Instead, many travel a circuit, setting up shop in different communities each day and offering a refreshing change of pace.

It’s therefore unlikely that a caravan of food trucks would suddenly start rolling into Oberlin on a daily basis.

For instance, before the pandemic, food trucks often parked in downtown Elyria on Thursdays in the warmer months. Those vendors offered different options than were normally available, drawing in workers who might otherwise have brought lunch from home.

It was something many looked forward to each week, not just for the food, but because they got to enjoy the sunshine and mingle. Coupled with the concerts sometimes held in Ely Square, the food trucks helped give downtown Elyria the feel of a mini street festival.

There were even times the lines at the trucks were so long that hungry diners in a hurry headed into a brick-and-mortar restaurant instead.

Oberlin could have something similar, which would likely be popular not only with local residents and downtown workers, but students and staff at Oberlin College.

That’s something Councilman Ray English recognized when he pointed out that giving food trucks greater leeway would help make downtown Oberlin more attractive.

The legislation does have opposition, including from Oberlin resident Mark Chesler, who told us Thursday that he was concerned about the lack of buffer zones between where food trucks would be allowed to park and residential areas, restaurants, parks and schools.

He also was troubled that the areas where food trucks would be allowed wasn’t spelled out in the ordinance, but instead left up to the city administration.

That doesn’t strike us as much of a problem.

Planning and Development Director Carrie Handy said there had been conversations about setting up specific areas for the food trucks to park that “were not located immediately next to any brick-and-mortar restaurants.”

Some of those spots could include the east side of Tappan Square, the Hamilton Street recreation complex parking lot, in front of the Gasholder Building on South Main Street and the eastern side of the City Hall parking lot, she said.

Besides, it’s not as if Council couldn’t revisit the legislation and impose specific limits if the administration started making bad calls about where food trucks could park. The whole point, however, of leaving the locations up to the administration, is to allow flexibility.

With those common sense safeguards in place revisiting the legislation is unlikely to be necessary.

Moreover, the legislation, which had its first reading Monday, would seek to ensure the collection of city income taxes from workers and set detailed rules for when and how food trucks could operate.

Oberlin would be well-served by rolling out the welcome mat for food trucks.

END